Backfield in Motion

The real play, though, was behind the scenes. Forget Gary Zimmerman: The Broncos' beef in the trenches are its arm-twisting lobbyists and lawyers, Gary "The Fridge" Reiff and Steve "The Firm" Farber. By Monday, they'd identified two weak points in the Senate's defense--Democrats Stan Matsunaka and Peggy Reeves--and started worming their way through.

On Tuesday, the two legislators huddled with Porter Wharton and came up with a compromise that turned their no votes around.

It called for the Broncos to make a twenty-year commitment to stay in Denver (why does that sound familiar?), and, if the team just happened to somehow get sold, to promise a $1 million (or 2 percent of the net sales price) donation to youth charities. Conveniently, the $1 million promise was coupled with an increase on the cap to $266 million rather than $265 million. (Lawmakers aren't allowed to vote on the same figure twice--so naturally, they went up.)

Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells popped up with his own amendment, calling for the long-discussed retractable dome to top the stadium bill. Another idea, another $100 million (which just happened to be where the Broncos' contribution was now capped). Wells's amendment proposed that the fees from any stadium-naming rights go to paying off the new roof--even though the 1996 bill earmarked any such fees for paying off the stadium itself. Although Wells's proposal just added to the public's burden, it made the bill look like it might benefit someone other than the Broncos. Promoters of giant tractor pulls, for example. Throw in another people-pleasing amendment requiring mass transit to the Valvoline Tractor Pull and Football Stadium, and on February 25, Lacy scored a victory: 20-14.

But the halftime hijinks were just beginning.
The Broncos say they could live with a dome--hey! they're team players!--but they truly don't want it, and so the concept is doomed. After all, the roof's biggest supporter was the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, which has always played ball with Bowlen. And already Lacy's been chatting with state representative Doug "No Nickname" Dean, tapped to quarterback the second half of the game, about splitting the dome into a separate ballot issue.

Other opponents are raising the roof, too. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who would applaud the Broncos a few days later, complained to Wells that her constituents had not been consulted about a domed stadium and were worried that increased use would harm the neighborhood. Although neighbors of Mile High may not have much political clout, another dome opponent definitely does. At a town meeting last Thursday night, Mayor Webb asked a gathering of northeast Denverites: "Has anybody ever seen a working retractable roof? What does this remind you of?"

Since the meeting was only a hop, skip and a jump from Denver International Airport, the crowd could be forgiven if the controversial retractable roof reminded them of, say, the once controversial tent roof at DIA. But Webb had in mind another DIA snafu, the automated baggage system that had never been tried before DIA--and has never worked there, either. In this country, the only retractable roof over a stadium is at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, which doesn't officially open until the end of the month. In the meantime, that stadium project is already $75 million over budget, with much of the overrun attributed to the roof--which may or may not retract on game day.

But the whole stadium deal is reminiscent of DIA for another reason: costs that are vague but obviously out of sight.

Although she was defeated in the Senate, Pascoe hasn't given up. If the sales tax is extended, she points out, it could raise as much as $562 million by 2012--and there's nothing in SB 171 that prohibits the stadium from absorbing every penny of it. And even if the costs of a new stadium are held at $366 million, interest alone will more than double that price tag.

In a remarkable bit of undervaluing, stadium authority chairman Ray Baker--who also chaired the authority that built Coors Field--admits that the actual cost of the stadium is the "$64,000 question." Four months ago, when the authority did its last study, it averaged the cost of the four football stadiums built over the past three years--and came up with well over $300 million in hard costs. No interest. "My job is to provide hard costs," he says.

From the sidelines, architect Stuart Ohlson watches the numbers go up. A year ago he threw the Broncos into a tizzy with his suggestion--backed with actual plans--that Mile High could be remodeled for far less than $180 million. To be sporting, the city asked HOK to consider the possibility of rehabbing the old stadium--and HOK came up with an estimate of $211 million, which pretty much shot down Ohlson's proposal.

Now, however, it's looking, if not practical, at least concrete. After all, we know where Mile High is and what it looks like--which is more than we know about the proposed new Broncos stadium. "I think there's more predictability in a rebuilt stadium," says Ohlson. "Particularly in the infrastructure and all of the costs that go into getting ready to build a building. At the moment, nobody knows what this pie is going to be made of--and I believe that the appetite of the citizens, and maybe the administration, is that this should be a wondrous and intriguing building."

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